From my book, Reflections on the Movies.
Movies have had a great influence on my life, as I’m sure they have had on yours. Three things in my childhood are responsible for my love of movies, or picture shows, as we called them back then.
The first of those was the neighborhood where I lived the first eleven years of my life. Our neighborhood backed up to the Westerner Drive-In, and on weekends the owner let our neighborhood have the back row. We caravaned through a neighbor’s backyard, loaded down with lawn chairs, blankets, a jug of lemonade, and a grocery sack full of home-popped popcorn. Looking like a Bedouin encampment, we huddled around clunky, metal speakers to hear that night’s movie.
On nights we didn’t camp on the back row, the neighbor kids roosted on the corner curb and from there we watched that week’s featured attraction. One week the show might be a western. Another week, a war picture. Another week, something scary, like Godzilla or Rodan.
We sat on that corner curb in the cool of so many summer evenings until one by one we were called home. I remember one night especially, the night when I was the last to be called. I was sitting there, watching the movie, Village of the Damned. [ http://youtu.be/YqlozoXVxYM ] I’m not sure of the storyline because I couldn’t hear the dialogue, but from what I could tell from the curb, the village was gradually being taken over by a group of school-age aliens who looked like normal human beings. That is, until they stared at you. When they did, their eyes glowed, and the person they stared at fell over, deader than a doornail.
I was doing fine, whistling my way through the scary parts, until a group of those children turned their eyes on the audience. One of them, no lie, looked straight at me. In an instant I knew that no amount of whistling was going to get me out of this one. When their eyes started to glow, I turned my head, jumped up, and beat feet home as fast as I could. “It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie,” I kept telling myself as I ran.
As a kid, I loved getting scared, which seems a rather sick pleasure as I think about it now. But then it was a real rush. And I loved it. I loved movies like Invaders from Mars, which was really scary, in spite of the fact that you could see zippers in the backs of the Martian costumes.
I loved The Mummy with Boris Karloff [ http://youtu.be/Skyuybdkb4w ], especially those scenes where the Mummy music started, signaling the fate of his next victim. As the music escalated, this dusty, loosely wrapped curse of a man trudged forward with one leg dragging behind him. All the while, you’re saying to the television, “Behind you! Look behind you! Get out of there! Hurry!” And the Mummy shuffles closer, one arm reaching ahead of him to gain a choke-hold on someone’s unsuspecting neck.
Or Lon Chaney in The Werewolf, [ http://youtu.be/AnGhskFaOf0 ]especially when the full moon rose in the sky, and you could see the sweaty terror on his face as he was transformed from man to beast before your very eyes. Only a silver bullet could kill him, one that had to be fired, if I am remembering right, by someone who loved him. High drama. Almost Shakespearean. At least for a nine-year-old boy.
Or Bela Lugosi in Dracula, especially when he pulled that sweeping cape over his face and turned into a bat. Or when his eyes widened as his mouth enunciated the words, ” I am Dra cu la.” [ http://youtu.be/Uu1Jad_qMPw ]. He could go anywhere as that bat. Maybe even in your bedroom. And the only thing that could stop him was a stake driven through his heart.
Feeling a little scared? It’s starting to come back to you, isn’t it? And, be honest, you’re loving it, aren’t you?
The second influence on me during those formative years was the River Oaks Theater, an inside show. As a boy I would get dropped off there on Saturdays for the matinee. The cost for a kid? A quarter. That quarter bought you two movies, a few cartoons, and a cool respite from the summer sun. The theater was packed with kids, dropped off by parents who couldn’t get a better deal on a babysitter anywhere, averaging out to be six or seven cents an hour. Before the movie started, kids would run up and down the aisles, chasing each other. Girls whispered among themselves about the boys. Boys giggled among themselves about the girls. As soon as the previews started, though, we scurried to our seats, where we would throw popcorn at the funnel of light coming from the projector. Then we would take our empty boxes of Pom-Poms or Junior Mints, and, with one end closed, we would put our mouth around the open end and blow, making horns out of them.
I especially remember the Saturday when a young Steve McQueen was featured there in the 1958 movie, The Blob. [ http://youtu.be/TdUsyXQ8Wrs ]I was eight. The scene I so vividly remember was the one where the Blob, which was this growing glob of goo from outer space, came oozing out the small projection windows of a movie theater and onto the hysterical audience. Talk about scared. When that scene came on, everyone, and I mean everyone, in the theater screamed and turned around to see if any of that same slimy goo was coming out the projection-room windows of their theater.
The third influence was “All Night Movies” on channel eight. It aired Friday nights, if I remember correctly, coming on after the ten o’clock news. The placard introducing the show had a candlestick in the foreground and a television in the background. It was introduced by a man’s voice, which was richly resonant, saying something like, “And now it’s time for ‘All Night Movies.’ Our first film for tonight is (such and such), starring (so and so) and (so and so). So settle back, get comfortable, and get ready to watch . . . ‘All Night Movies.'”
I can’t quite remember if my parents let me stay up on those nights or if I just quietly slipped out of my room after they had gone to sleep. However I got there, by permission or subversion, I would bring a blanket and a pillow, make a snack in the kitchen, curl up on the couch and watch until I fell asleep. The atmosphere was as much a part of the enjoyment as the movie itself. Everyone was asleep, and it was just me and the black-and-white TV, which supplied the only light. I saw all kinds of movies on those Friday nights. John Wayne, my favorite actor behind Abbott and Costello, was in many of them. Flying Tigers. The High and the Mighty. Hondo. And my favorite, Shepherd of the Hills. [ http://youtu.be/UBrTFtsijus ] I liked it so much that every week I looked in the TV listings to see when it was showing next. I was in seminary before I noticed it airing again. It was scheduled for a weekday, late in the morning. I stayed home from a day of classes to watch it. I fixed myself a snack, curled up in a blanket . . . and suddenly I was a kid again.
Besides influencing me as a kid, the movies have also influenced me as an adult, especially in regard to my profession. When I wrote my first book, I was thirty, perilously late for starting a career in writing. By that time I was married with four children, and all my formal education was behind me. I knew no writers, no editors, no publishers, and precious little about writing itself. In college I had taken one course on creative writing and stopped going to class mid-semester because it seemed a waste of time. Of course, by then (I was a sophomore) I had raised “wasting time” to an art form, so it was a little pretentious of me to think that way. Okay, a lot pretentious. Anyway, that class was my first college course on writing. It was also my last.
Ten years later, when I wrote my first book, I was convinced that this was what God wanted me to do with my life. I was determined to learn the craft however I could. My most influential mentors were movies. They were also the most fun. I studied them to see what they could teach me on a craft level. As opposed to spatial art forms like art and architecture, which we experience all at one time, movies and books are sequential art forms, ones that we experience a scene at a time, a sentence at a time. Since they are similar in form, I thought they might share some common principles.
So I observed the structure of the film, along with its plots and subplots, its themes and motifs, its rhythm and pacing, its turning points and transitions, things like that. If a movie touched me, I would read the novel from which it as adapted, attempting to get in the mind of the screenwriter to understand why certain changes had been made. Why, for instance, had a character been dropped? Why had one been added? Why was the dialogue cut short? Or new dialogue written? Why had the plot been relegated to the position of a subplot? Or the subplot elevated to the position of the plot? Why had the beginning changed, or the ending?
From this method of learning, I discovered something about myself. I was a visual learner, not a verbal one. Which translated naturally to my writing. And as I have thought about that over the years, I have come to realize that we experience life not so much through words as through images.
When we dream, we dream in images, not words. Words are symbols that point to images in the real world. The symbols themselves, however, are one step removed from the real world. And that, I think, is one of the reasons we are so drawn to movies. Unlike the written words of a book or the spoken words of a sermon, the translation has already been done for us. Because of that, nothing stands between us and the images. No snooty words we have to look up in a dictionary. No foreign phrases we have to puzzle over. No syntactically tangled sentences we need to unravel. And no paragraphs we need to go back and read again.
It’s just us, face-to-face with the images, laughing together, crying together, and talking to each other about life.